Fame came early to Bill Mauldin.
During World War II, as a no-name, baby-faced soldier just past 20, he began drawing cartoons about military combat. Military newspapers began publishing those trenchant cartoons, despite antagonism from the commanders.
Within a year, his cartoon characters named Willie and Joe became famous in the United States, too, because publishers realized that nobody was telling the truth about the ugliness of combat quite like Mauldin.
When the war ended, Mauldin returned to the United States as a famous cartoonist, seen by nearly anonymous soldiers everywhere as their spokesman.
Some years, Mauldin handled the fame (and the wealth that came with it) well. Others, he seemed erratic and despondent. Mauldin wrote books and Hollywood movie scripts, and drew cartoons about civilian life as well as military battle. He divorced his prewar bride, married two more times, fathered eight children, flirted with alcoholism and hung on past 80, succumbing in 2003.
Biographer Todd DePastino, who teaches at Waynesburg University in Pennsylvania and lives in Pittsburgh, became fascinated with Mauldin a long time ago. Previously, he edited the cartoon collection Willie & Joe: The WWII Years. Now he has captured Mauldin's life in full, and what a marvelous achievement it is.
There is no doubt that part of the biography's success resides in DePastino winning permission to reprint nearly 100 of Mauldin's cartoons, from World War II and later. They explain and enrich the text immeasurably.
DePastino received cooperation from Mauldin's relatives, especially his four sons from his second marriage, the sister of his second wife, and his third wife. Sometimes cooperation from surviving family members turns out to be a curse, as they try to control the image of the deceased. In this instance, according to DePastino, nobody tried to interfere, even though Mauldin comes across as anything but a saint.
Yes, DePastino is empathetic. He clearly admires many aspects of Mauldin's editorial messages and the way Mauldin overcame physical frailness and parental neglect while growing up amid poverty in the remote New Mexico mountains.
But the empathy never morphs into unwarranted sympathy. From relating Mauldin's birth in 1921 to his excruciating old age, DePastino's tone is pitch perfect.
Inevitably, the biography devotes the bulk of its pages to World War II. Mauldin did not have to kill enemy soldiers day in and day out, but he did not avoid the fighting. Especially in Italy, Mauldin saw action on the front lines so he could understand what infantry members experienced.
Many soldiers on the front lines — probably most — came from hardscrabble backgrounds like Mauldin's and, like the cartoonist, had received little formal education. So, just as he could relate to them, they could relate to him. As they complained bitterly to him about lack of logistical support from the officers far away from the battlefield, Mauldin became the ideal transmission belt for the usually legitimate gripes.
When commanders like Gen. George Patton tried to censor Mauldin's cartoons, some remarkably enlightened generals, including Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower, ordered hands off. Nobody, and certainly not Eisenhower, liked to hear the griping. But Eisenhower, later president of the United States, understood that the publication of Mauldin's cartoons helped morale by giving soldiers an outlet.
After World War II, Mauldin used his pen and his voice to speak out on behalf of rights for the underprivileged across the United States. That led the Federal Bureau of Investigation to target him as a probable communist. Mauldin, however, would not be crushed. Even as he lived comfortably, even as he failed in many ways as a husband and father, Mauldin spoke out on behalf of the little people and prodded at the weak spots of insensitive, powerful officials.
Five years after his death, Mauldin comes across as a hero — a deeply flawed hero, to be sure, but a hero nonetheless.
Steve Weinberg is a biographer in Columbia, Mo.